U.S. Anti-Narcotics Efforts Make the Drug Epidemic Worse

By Mike Tidwell, The Liberty Project

No credible evidence exists showing that stringent enforcement of U.S. narcotics laws actually reduces drug use in this country. Indeed, the opposite seems true: Law enforcement efforts actually PROMOTE elicit drug use.

That's certainly my observation after ten years working with homeless drug addicts in Washington, D.C. The endless police raids on crack houses, shooting galleries, and various open-air markets simply push drugs block-by-block through the city, guaranteeing that every D.C. teenager will eventually have a full-blown market on his street corner, thus hyper-exposing him to life-wrecking narcotics.

The problem is simple: attacking supply without addressing demand guarantees that drug markets and drug sales will not cease; they'll simply move to another spot momentarily untargeted by police raids. Then they'll move again. This phenomenon accelerates the epidemic, casting a wider net than would otherwise be cast, reeling in child addicts who would otherwise stand a much better chance staying drug-free. It's important, again, to be very clear on this point: Our law-enforcement efforts actually help peddle drugs. Society has become a pusher. It's hard to draw any other conclusion.

Now comes news that we will soon get more of the same. The Clinton Administration's annual anti-narcotics budget, unveiled earlier this year, calls for roughly $12 billion in spending for law enforcement, interdiction and other efforts to attack narcotics supply. That's a whopping 30% increase since 1996 and nearly a doubling of such funding in the past decade.This means more money for more cops and other resources to push crack, heroin, and marijuana through the streets of America's cities.

Tragically, as in past years, funding to reduce drug demand constitutes barely a third of the proposed federal narcotics budget while treatment budgets in many U.S. cities continue to drop. The District's treatment system, for example, is in utter shambles. Between 1993 and 1998, the city's budget treatment fell from $31.3 million to $19.7 million - a 37 percent drop. Drug offenders sentenced to treatment by judges languish in prison for months for lack of a bed, and about 1,200 people are on the city's waiting list for methadone maintenance. Meanwhile, across the United States treatment programs can accommodate only about 50% of hard-core users.

This despite a 1994 Rand Corp. study that found that drug treatment was seven times more cost-effective than domestic law enforcement, 10 times more effective than interdiction, and 23 times more effective than drug suppression efforts in countries that supply drugs. For example, for the cost of a single Customs' surveillance plane­­a reported $47 million­­the District could treat all those on its waiting list and more.

But instead of treating drug use as a public health issue, we continue to criminalize it with endless street raids, which send hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders to prison. And incarceration is yet another way our policies actually promote drug use. Almost half of all inmates at DC's Lorton prison are nonviolent drug offenders, many of them sentenced under draconian federal laws requiring a mandatory minimum five years in jail for possessing as little as five grams of crack - the weight of two pennies.

Any offender who is not chronically deviant and prone to long-term drug use before incarceration has his chances ratcheted up significantly during five years exposure to the violence and dysfunction of prison culture.

It's time to end what amounts to state sponsorship of drug use in our cities. Let's increase and improve treatment and drug education programs as possible first step toward gradual decriminalization and possible legalization.

Holland, to cite one example, has seen no significant increase in marijuana use since legalizing coffeehouse consumption 20 years ago. Among young adolescents, drug use in Holland is actually lower than in the US.

Even with its risks and challenges, legalization seems to offer a better alternative to the mess we have now, where our tax dollars and law-enforcement techniques police officers use actually encourage young people­­however inadvertently­­to use drugs and take that first fateful step toward addiction.

(Mike Tidwell is a writer for the Liberty Project in Washington, D.C. and is the author of the book, In the Shadow of the Whitehouse, the story of drug addiction in the nation's capitol.)